A Brief Intro to KPOP: The Powerful Music Industry from South Korea
Sections of this article include:
The Definition, The History, The Generations, The Appeal, The Fandom, The Colors, KPOP and The RWC Tutors, Complete Playlist of Songs Mentioned
It's the music genre that has amassed over, wait for it, 411 BILLION views on YouTube ("KPOP Music - Statistics"); the genre whose artists have sold-out stadiums across the world including here in the USA; the genre that is carrying physical album sales on its shoulders; what is it? Well, it's KPOP and it's been around for decades and continues to expand every year.
You may have heard of some of today's biggest KPOP artists such as BTS, BLACKPINK, Twice, and NCT just to name a few. Maybe you've even seen their albums on Target shelves, their performances and interviews on TV, or maybe you've seen their faces on the cover of magazines ranging from teen magazines to Time, Rolling Stone, and Entertainment Weekly.
This article will introduce you to the pop-cultural phenomenon that is KPOP, or if you're already a fan, this will be a refresher.
KPOP is short for "Korean pop music" and is influenced by genres all over the world; it's not just strictly pop music as some might assume. This industry from South Korea incorporates hip-hop, EDM, rock, soul, disco, and other genres into its music. There is a sound or style for everyone. There is a wide arrangement of KPOP artists including soloists, boy groups, girl groups, special project groups or sub-groups, and less common - CO-ED groups.
KPOP groups are carefully crafted by music labels who scout, conduct auditions, and then hand-select performers who have trained for years in singing and dancing in sometimes boot-camp-like regimes. KPOP members are primarily South Korean or Korean-American but there are also many artists in the industry from Japan, Thailand, China, the USA, Canada, Australia, and so on. Many labels also train their own artists. Members are chosen to be leaders, lead singers, lead rappers, and lead dancers.
In the 1990s, there was a huge shift in South Korea's music with the introduction of hip-hop group Seo Taiji and Boyz. According to Aja Romano of VOX, they "were innovators who challenged norms around musical styles, song topics, fashion, and censorship. They sang about teen angst and the social pressure to succeed within a grueling education system, and insisted on creating their own music and writing their own songs outside of the manufactured network environment."
Their influence quickly caught on and soon, music labels were assembled in the mid and late 90s that became known as The Big 3 (the biggest labels in Korea): SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment (founded by Yang Hyunsuk of Seo Taiji and Boyz). Today, HYBE LABELS, which is home to BTS, is now becoming one of the largest labels in the industry.
In 1996, SM Entertainment debuted the 5-member boyband H.O.T. (short for "Highfive of Teenagers"); they were the first group to be categorized as an "idol group" - "idol" became the keyword for an artist in the KPOP industry.
In 1997, DSP Entertainment debuted a 6-member group named SECHSKIES (a rough translation meaning "Six Diamonds/Crystals" in German). There was rivalry between fans of H.O.T. and SECHSKIES and this is where the concept of "fanwars" originated in KPOP. In 2016, after 16 years of disbandment, SECHSKIES reunited and is now an active group once again.
Also in 1997, SM Entertainment then debuted the first idol girl group, S.E.S. (short for their names, Sea, Eugene, and Shoo); they also had a short reunion in 2016. Their debut song, "I'm Your Girl" features an intro with members of SHINHWA.
SHINHWA debuted in 1998 and are the longest active group in KPOP history; this year marked their 24th anniversary. They became SM Entertainment's second boy group.
H.O.T., SECHSKIES, S.E.S, BABY V.O.X., NRG, and SHINHWA are some of the founding groups of the first generation of KPOP and are cited as the inspiration for the generations who followed after. Many new debut groups tend to cover the songs of these senior groups.
The second generation of KPOP started in the early 2000s and contains groups like Epik High, TVXQ, SS501, Super Junior, Girl's Generation, BIGBANG, SHINee, 2PM, BEAST, 2NE1, MISS A, Wonder Girls, and many more.
The third generation started around 2012 and consists of groups such as BTS, EXO, BLACKPINK, Twice, Seventeen, GOT7, VIXX, Mamamoo, MONSTA X, and numerous others. Now, in 2022, we are in the fourth generation of KPOP where new groups are debuting more than ever; some of the fourth generation leaders include Stray Kids, ATEEZ, ITZY, and aespa.
KPOP artists are known for being highly trained triple threats, meaning they can sing, dance, and put on a heck of a show, some artists are even actors in film, TV, and stage. KPOP music videos are known for high budgets, film-like concepts and storylines, eye-catching colors, and impressive choreography.
The KPOP industry is also booming in physical album sales; that's right, KPOP fans still buy CDs (on top of streaming online as well). But what makes physical KPOP albums special? Though standard jewel cases are available (which is standard packaging: a small lyrics book + the CD), most KPOP albums are packed with goodies. An album can be the size of a small to large book that includes dozens of pages of photos, and options of photocards (trading cards), postcards, stickers, folded posters, polaroids, and other extras. One album can supply a fan with enough goodies to decorate their room or workspace with. Photocards are highly sought-after collectibles; like how many people collect baseball cards or Pokemon, collecting KPOP photocards is the pastime of many dedicated hobbyists.
Aside from exciting albums, many KPOP songs echo messages of positivity, self-love, reflection, social issues, and empowerment in their music. From songs like ITZY's "WANNABE" where they repeat "I just want to be me", Hwasa's "Maria"
which is about struggling with loneliness and criticism, 2NE1's "Ugly" which discusses body image issues, and Dreamcatcher's "MAISON" which is about climate change. In recent years, BTS started focusing on concepts of growth through dark times to learning to love oneself. Many KPOP artists' songs are relatable to their listeners.
Who are the listeners? You'll find KPOP fans of all ages, genders, and backgrounds across continents. Though it's hard to pinpoint concrete demographics, a study conducted by scholar Derek Laffan surveyed 1,477 KPOP fans and identified that the average age for a KPOP fan is 23 years old, that a little over 70% were female, 26.7% are male, 1.8% are non-binary, and 0.7% are transgender (7). However, if you end up on the side of the KPOP community on TikTok or at a concert, you'll find many fans who are 30+ years old.
Thinking of the several concerts I've attended, I've seen a huge variety in the demographics of fans. When I attended KCON in Los Angeles, I noticed that fans were from a multitude of races/ethnicities and were between their teen years to late 20s. When I attended the Korea Times Music Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, the majority of the attendees were Korean-Americans whose ages range from little kids to older adults (Grandparents' age!). It's pleasant to see the huge variety of fans!
KPOP has led many fans to new interests and hobbies. Many fans enjoy practicing choreography from their favorite songs, studying the Korean language, creating fan art and fan-made videos, and watching Korean films and TV.
During the birthdays of different artists, many fans will donate to charities in honor of the artist and will sponsor special birthday advertisements to be displayed throughout South Korea and other countries (some have even made it to Times Square in New York).
Every KPOP group has an official color(s) which is usually reflected in their official light-stick. What is a light-stick? It's kind of like a fancy flashlight that can be connected to Bluetooth or NFC, so at a concert, the light-sticks can be controlled to create a gorgeous "ocean" of colors. Before light-sticks were created (which credit is usually attributed to G-Dragon of BIGBANG), fans used balloons to represent their favorite group's colors. Fans also perform "fan-chants" to accompany songs during live performances.
KPOP and The RWC Tutors
Are you wondering what artists to check out or impressions straight from fans? Well, take it from the RWC tutors who are fans of KPOP. They have your recommendations COVERED. The next section of this article includes profiles written by these excited tutor fans! You've heard of KPOP, now get ready for TUTOR-POP. The featured photos below are of each tutor's "bias" which is the term used by fans to mean "favorite member."
"Listening to KPOP makes me feel ~ free" - Iman A.
Name: Iman A.
Top groups: BTS, TXT, ATEEZ
Fan Since: 2021
How I Discovered KPOP: I've always known about KPOP through my little cousin years ago but never got into it until recently. I've always wanted to get into it but just never knew where to start. In the beginning of last year, one of my best friends introduced me to her favorite group: ATEEZ & made me a playlist of KPOP songs that she thought I would like. I instantly became obsessed and loved the music. I slowly got into more groups throughout the year and before I know it--I'm a full blown ARMY, ATINY, MOA, etc. spending money on albums/merch, fangirling over new content, and listening to KPOP constantly.
Ultimate Biases (Favorite Members): Taehyung and Jimin (BTS), Yeonjun (TXT), Hongjoong and Jongho (ATEEZ)
Favorite Songs/Playlist Recommendations: "Drunk-Dazed" by ENHYPEN, "Shoot Me" by DAY6, "Dis-ease" by BTS, "No Rules" by TXT, "HOME" by BTS, "2nd Grade" by BTS, "Answer" by ATEEZ, "CRY FOR ME" by TWICE, and "Attention, please!" by ENHYPEN. Playlists linked here: 1, 2
What My Position In A KPOP Group or Industry Would Be: Vocalist, dancer, maknae (youngest member)
Impact KPOP Has Had On Me: KPOP has had a huge impact on my life and I just barely became a fan a year ago. Becoming a KPOP fan, I was instantly welcomed into such a vast, diverse community of loving people. Listening to KPOP makes me feel ~ free ~ it just has this booming energy I can't describe other than force-feeding you my KPOP playlist. People are often discouraged by KPOP because they "don't understand Korean" (I used to think the same way), but I learned that music transcends language barriers. If the music makes you feel something--who cares if it's in a language you don't understand? Also, it is not that hard to look up the translations and often when I do, I become more attached to a KPOP song because the lyrics resonate deep with me. KPOP allows one to truly express themselves. So, long story short, KPOP has had a large impact on my happiness and I wish I joined the community sooner.
What My Favorite Group Means To Me: My favorite group (BTS) means so much to me and I never thought they would have such a huge impact on my life. Before I became Army, I've always respected everything what BTS stands for but now learning so much about them and each individual member--they make me feel complete. They're literally the biggest group in the world and yet they still remain to be extremely humble. I've been a fangirl for over a decade and I have never received so much love and attention from my favorite artists more than BTS has. They give out so much love to ARMY; the love is mutual between ARMY and BTS & this brings me so much joy I can't put it into words. BTS is composed of the most talented 7 weirdos that make me feel open to be my authentic self and live life to the fullest. They've taught me to love every part of myself--the good and the bad--and to enjoy every moment.
BONUS: NEW BTS ALBUM 06.10.2022 !!!! 💜
"..indescribable joy..." - Ulysses O.
Name: Ulysses O.
Top KPOP/Indie Artists: Bronze, JANE POP, Kim Areum
Fan For: 2 years
How I Discovered KPOP: Browsing around on YouTube..
Song On Repeat: "MAGENTA" by JANE POP
Impact KPOP Has Had On Me: In a way, yes it has. Whenever I come across a new genre of music, I get so invested in finding other artists in said genre that give me the same indescribable joy as personal favorites I've listened to for years. With KPOP it was no different, it was so fun discovering new faves to play on repeat.
What My Position In A KPOP Group or Industry Would Be: Songwriter
"BTS bring me comfort." - Annie B.
Name: Annie B.
Top groups: BTS, TXT, Seventeen, Red Velvet, Twice
Fan Since: 2016
How I Discovered KPOP: My friend was super into Seventeen. She always would hype them up and one night I caved and ended up pulling an all-nighter with her and binge-watched their reality show, One Fine Day; from there I became a fan.
What My Favorite Group Means To Me: My favorite group, BTS, brings me comfort and has brought me many opportunities to connect with other wonderful people in my life. Their music is filled with beautiful symbolism and meaning.
Song That's On Repeat: "Fairy of Shampoo" by TXT, "Rocket" by Seventeen, and "Moonlight" by Twice
Ultimate Bias (Favorite Member): J-Hope from BTS! An absolute ray of sunshine who is constantly bringing me hope :,)
Impact KPOP Has Had On Me: Kpop has honestly impacted my life a lot. The industry is always producing fun and unique concepts with album releases and being exposed to all of this has helped me discover my own fun and unique style. I have also made a lot of great friends because of kpop. I have always been a really shy person, but through kpop I have been able to open up to people a part of the kpop community and attend concerts, cup-sleeve events, and other places with the friends I have made.
What My Position In A KPOP Group or Industry Would Be: Vocalist, maknae (youngest member)
"I love something that's unironic and extra." - Haley S.
Name: Haley S.
Top groups: Red Velvet, BLACKPINK, 2PM, TWICE
Fan Since: 2014